Suzette Lomeli’s father always told her, “If you want to get anywhere in life, you have to do it yourself.” Growing up in Fontana, CA, in the suburbs of Los Angeles she took those words to heart. Ralph Lomeli, a Mexican immigrant, and his wife, Nelly, were determined that their children would get an education and not fall prey to the gangs that were in close proximity to their suburban Los Angeles neighborhood. “They pushed us to break the cycle of poverty and reach for the stars,” added Lomeli. As chef and owner of Lomeli’s Mexican Food in Plattsburgh along with her husband, Armando Martinez, Lomeli has made the dreams of her parents, and her own dreams, come true.
It’s a Family Affair
Lomeli was a stay-at-home mom in California with a small child when her father got a con- tract with Nova Bus and came to Plattsburgh in 2014. He recruited Martinez, his son-in-law, along with Lomeli’s brothers, Ralphie and Edward, and their brother-in-law, Fonzi, to come east to work as well. Martinez began working as an assembler, and the job and living in Plattsburgh, began to grow on him, but he could not be without his wife and child. Lomeli moved here to be with her husband, and had no idea what kind of future awaited her in the small, snowy town in the Adirondacks.
Growing up, Lomeli’s mother always made the family a home-cooked meal every day that she, her brothers, and her sisters Evie and Erika lingered over for hours. Those meals had a strong influence on Lomeli, as did cooking for crowds as large as 200 people in ministry as a Jehovah’s Witness. While it might not have occurred to her to open a Mexican restaurant in Plattsburgh, Lomeli always had a passion for feeding people and heard echoes of her father’s advice to find success by being your own boss. She began catering occasional meals for Nova Bus and its employees. Word got out about the authentic Mexican food this California transplant was making, and the demand—and appetite—for her signature recipes grew by word of mouth until one day she realized she needed a real home base for her cooking.
Although Lomeli had been a small business owner before—operating a hair salon called Bonafide back in Cali—it was with great trepidation that she and Martinez made the leap to turning her small, home-based hobby into a real brick-and-mortar business. As they made the final preparations to open the restaurant in its original location in the Plattsburgh Plaza, the couple called in the troops. Lomeli’s mother and father, brother Edward and sister Erika were all in the kitchen, and from the moment they opened, customers were lined up out the door. The line didn’t stop until one point in the evening when they literally ran out of food.
The phrase, family-owned business, means more to Lomeli than anything. “Without my parent’s support, we would not be here,” she said. She credited her sister, Erika, with being an integral part of her success as well. “She has helped us build our business here. She worked with me every day, getting this place up and running. My sister and I are very close and I am so happy to have her as part of this awesome dream!” She also gave props to her “little” brother, Edward, for his contributions to the early stages of building the business.
Martinez was extremely supportive of his wife’s efforts from the very beginning. He continued to work at Nova Bus until the restaurant became so busy that he had to leave to join his wife in the kitchen. “My grand- mother would never believe I was cooking for a living,” he said. Apparently not a natural in the kitchen growing up, he was known in the family for burning every dish he tried to make. “Now he makes the rice better than me,” joked Lomeli. Their three-year-old daughter, Morrisette, helps out in her own way, too, shouting “Customer!” whenever anyone walks through the front door.
Brightly colored walls and a huge chalkboard menu welcome customers, and the tables are covered in brightly printed oilcloth, which Lomeli’s mother picked out for her. You won’t find mariachi muzak playing in the dining area. Lomeli and Martinez grew up on American rock music, and they stay true to their roots. The takeout business is brisk and steady, with some customers preferring to dine in at the handful of booths leftover from the previous tenant. The fare at Lomeli’s is revisionist Mexicali, paying homage to their southern California and Mexican roots, honoring recipes from both her mother and grandmother and putting her own individual stamp on them, all while doing business in upstate New York. Fresh ingredients are used whenever possible; the meats are seasoned and marinated in-house and—mic drop—they don’t own a microwave.
When customers are first introduced to the “Garbage Burrito,” they do a double take on the name, but Lomeli explains that in California, every Mexicali restaurant worth its salt has their own version of this specialty. Lomeli’s Garbage Burrito boasts beans, cheese, rice, cilantro, onion, rice, house- marinated carne asada, chicken, guacamole, and fries. Yes, fries. In the burrito. Another house specialty, “Fat Girl Fries,” are french fries topped with beans, cheese, rice, cilantro, onions, guacamole, sour cream, and carne asada, almost like a Garbage Burrito living on top of a plate of fries. North Country residents are drawn to these fries, maybe because they seem like poutine on steroids. Along with taquitos, flautas and enchiladas, the restaurant rounds out the menu with more of what Americans have come to consider traditional Mexican staples like quesadillas and nachos.
Nothing makes it onto the menu until it’s been tried and tested by family and friends, vetted for flavor and authenticity. The restau- rateurs love customer feedback, even on the few occasions that the comments might be negative. “We are open to constructive crit- icism,” said Lomeli. “We look at it like, ‘How can we fix this? How can we do this better?’”
Coming Soon to Downtown Plattsburgh
With the business growing at a rapid pace through continued word of mouth, gush- ing Yelp reviews (“A hidden gem!”) and the magic of Facebook, Lomeli began the search for a bigger location. A casual conversation led them to 24 Oak Street, the former home of Cheechako Taco before the building was ravaged by fire. The newly reconditioned space was a blank slate, just waiting for Lomeli’s signature Mexicali décor. She is excited to step up their table service at the new locale with real plates and silverware replacing the current takeout containers. Wait staff will serve patrons at their tables and fountain drinks will replace cans and bottles of soda. Because family is important, long tables will be available for large groups, so everyone can eat together. Lomeli and Martinez are planning a grand opening at the new location for some time in March.
Lomeli reflected on how welcoming Plattsburgh has been to the family and to Lomeli’s Mexican Food. We’re glad they’re here sharing it.